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'Change is opportunity:' Alerus Center moves forward after firings

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- In the aftermath of two top officials' firings at the Alerus Center, leaders with the city and the public events center are looking for ways to come together and move ahead.

The Alerus Center in Grand Forks. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Alerus Center

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - In the aftermath of two top officials' firings at the Alerus Center, leaders with the city and the public events center are looking for ways to come together and move ahead.

An investigative report into workplace culture at Grand Forks' Alerus Center is blunt not only in its appraisal of Cheryl Swanson, the facility's recently fired director, but in its presentation of her staff's comments about her leadership. While some employees praise her management, many in the nearly 120-page document condemn it as hostile and unpredictable.

The report contains remarks from Swanson in which she defends her attempts to build a healthy, stable work environment, but she also points out what appear to be a toxic workplace culture and difficulty building relationships with her staff. In full, the report corroborates City Administrator Todd Feland's remarks earlier this week that, from a personnel perspective, the report sketches a "broken" environment under her leadership.

Compiled at a cost of about $10,000 by a Fergus Falls, Minn., law firm, the report doesn't make recommendations. It presents the facts and leaves to local leaders how repairing that workplace will work.

That process began taking place earlier this week, with Assistant Director Bob LeBarron fired by Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown on Tuesday. Swanson's termination followed on Wednesday, and now, local leaders are embarking on a process that could reshape the relationship between the city and the Alerus Center.

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"Change is opportunity," Brown said. "Now we have the opportunity to move forward."

The investigation

The concerns that launched the investigation started coming to light Oct. 17, when employees reached out to human resources officials and began describing workplace problems at the Alerus Center. City documents show that Pemberton Law, the investigating firm, was contacted before the end of the day. Both Swanson and LeBarron were placed on paid leave by Oct. 21.

The investigative report includes interview summaries with 23 employees, including both leaders. It offers a closer look into employees' concerns about Swanson and LeBarron and at their own thoughts about the matter.

Summaries of interviews in the report describe Swanson as respected or even admired by some employees. Others describe her "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality, her "toxic leadership" or her "inability to deal with people." Swanson herself describes her outreach to employees and attempts to build bridges in the office, working with a leadership coach and taking the results to heart.

"The Alerus Center staff work very hard and the positive results are measurable," Swanson wrote in an email to the investigator included in the report. "I have recognized and addressed staff conflict the past few years. ... Ironically it seemed the environment and teamwork had greatly improved recently."

LeBarron was described in interview summaries as prone to unprofessional, emotional outbursts.

"LeBarron had a blog connected to his Facebook or Twitter page that was very detailed," one interview summary noted. "If he had a fight at work, LeBarron would describe the whole thing, and one time, he posted a picture of John Goodman from 'The Big Lebowski' holding a gun, and it concerned some people."

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The report states that "LeBarron is aware of his shortcomings and willing to work on them, although this will most likely require outside assistance."

Julie Rygg, the chairwoman of the city's events center commission - which oversees the Alerus Center - said she was surprised to learn about the workplace environment at the facility. Though she'd known there had been issues, she said she didn't realize that there was such a strong negative sentiment that was directed toward the top of the management chain.

"When you looked at the things that were going on there and how well it was operating, you kind of attribute it to, well, the work environment, the hours they put in," Rygg said, noting that she and Swanson had discussed it. "I had never received any complaints from the employees' viewpoint."

Mayor Brown fired LeBarron on Nov. 15, citing the contents of the report as his reason for doing so. Speaking Thursday, he said his hesitation to immediately do the same for Swanson stemmed from sympathy for her and the initial belief that the report may have been too harsh.

"You try to be compassionate, because you want things to work out." Brown said, but said he was swayed by comments from Alerus Center employees and commission members. "But to lead a team, you need a team. ... The hardest part of your job should be your job, not the environment."

Swanson was fired on Nov. 16.

Rebuilding

Darryl Jorgenson, a financial manager at the Alerus Center, has been handling much of the day-to-day management of the center while Feland has managed larger items in LeBarron's and Swanson's absence. Jorgenson stressed that, despite the unpleasant process that unfolded this past week, the staff is "very positive and professional" and are focused on their work.

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"We trust that the city leaders will make the proper decision, and we'll follow through with whatever their decisions are," he said.

It's not clear what those changes will be yet, though. Many of the leaders with the city or the Alerus Center who were interviewed for this piece spoke about the future on Friday, less than 48 hours after Swanson's departure. Many of them spoke in the broadest terms, saying that more discussion and planning had to happen before a plan could come together.

Some did offer a few specifics, though. Curt Kreun, vice chairman of the city's events center commission, said he wants to fix any communications issues at the center to keep problems like these from building up over time. Brown has talked about significantly shifting the relationship the Alerus Center has with the city. Feland has said that it's important to more clearly define roles for the commission and city.

Rygg said leaders are hoping to get together and start to sketch out a plan to find new leadership sometime during the holiday week.

"I think we're scheduled to have a December (commission) meeting," Feland said. "It would be nice for us to put some information together, some items for conversation for how to move forward at that December meeting.

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